I know, I know, it’s a cliché to call ‘Marge vs the Monorail’ the best episode of The Simpsons.
Even more so when my Twitter avatar is a picture of the episode’s villain, Lyle Lanley.
But I’ve gone back through the show’s golden era, desperately looking for reasons to look past this episode and find something better, and it’s impossible.
It’s the episode a casual fan would likely choose, with a patchy memory of the show ensuring one-off characters like Lanley, Hank Scorpio and Frank Grimes stand out more than great episodes centring around the regular cast.
Two such episodes – ‘Last Exit to Springfield’ and ‘Cape Feare’ – come close to top honours. But these are merely close to perfection. ‘Monorail’ is pure gold from start to finish.
Anyone who has dipped back into The Simpsons after years away will have some stand-out moments lodged in their memory. Some will be moments that are laugh-out-loud funny in any context, while others need the nuts and bolts of the inter-character relationships to truly click.
This is in part why so many have fallen out of love with the show over the last decade and a half: consistency in even the main characters has either been oversimplified or hugely diluted, with a greater reliance on throwaway jokes. The Simpsons worked so well not necessarily because these jokes were smarter, per se, but because they were used sparingly either side of intelligent dialogue and well mapped-out episodes.
And, would you know, a fair few of these crop up within the space of a few minutes in this one episode.
Take the opening scene, with Homer hitting a chestnut tree while singing his own name to the tune of the Flintstones theme: in isolation, a lazy overreliance on slapstick. In the context of the fourth season of a show hitting its stride, the perfect way to introduce an episode.
Or Mr Burns’ disguise as Mr Snrub, from “some place far away”: an oft-quoted reference, but one which it’s easy to forget comes less than five minutes after the scene above. Likewise “I call the big one ‘bitey’”. These moments could exist in a multitude of episodes, yet here they are, condensed into just one.
Still, the star is Lanley, one of Phil Hartman’s finest moments among a can’t-miss career on the show.
The Simpsons was arguably never the same after Hartman’s untimely death in 1998, and the show’s creator, Matt Groening, summed up the man’s talents in an article written shortly after the 49-year-old was murdered by his wife Brynn.
“He was a comedy writer's dream,” Groening admitted.
“Phil could get a laugh out of any line he was given, and make a funny line even funnier. He nailed the joke every time, and that made all The Simpsons writers worship him.”
And while Hartman’s regular turns as Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure were guaranteed hits, in Lanley he produced a three-dimensional character in the space of 20 minutes. Sure, those dimensions are all faux-charm and duplicitousness, but it still counts.
Coupled with Conan O’Brien, whose handful of shows as writer were among the show’s finest, and you knew you were onto a surefire winner.
And hey, he enters with a song so you know he’s good.
Put simply, there is barely a moment in the episode that doesn’t (a) land as a joke or (b) drive the plot forward, and this goes to show the tightness of the show’s mid-’90s heyday. It’s hard to even find a 30-second segment of filler throughout.
And to anyone who suggests the episode itself might be considered a 22-minute throwaway gag, an extended segment with guests (Hartman’s Lanley and Leonard Nimoy as himself) who have no bearing on the show’s overall continuity, such an outlook overlooks the steady passage of complementary storylines which do plenty for inter-character relationships within the Simpsons universe.
The relationship between Homer and Bart is at its most poignant where transport is involved, be it Homer’s attempted jump over Springfield gorge in Season 2 episode ‘Bart the Daredevil’ or in the third season, with the father-son collaboration for the Soap Box Derby.
‘Monorail’ continues this theme, with Bart helping his father practice for his monorail conductor’s exam in a rare display of a sincere family environment. Obviously that can’t last forever, though, so the laugh-out-loud ‘Ho-Ju’ line finds its way in to stop things getting too soppy.
That’s what The Simpsons always had over other shows of its time: a reluctance to be drawn into neat and tidy endings. Indeed, we saw some self-awareness of this matter in Season 6, when Homer has to follow his assessment of everything being “wrapped up in a neat little package” with “really, I mean that”.
Viewers would get the feeling that the show’s creators would be upset with a smooth run-through akin to most early ‘90s TV, so it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that there was an element of self-sabotage in such moments.
Indeed, even the closing moments aren’t allowed to deliver closure, quite literally. But hey, the ‘local man saves town’ narrative is played out anyway, right?
It would be boring to simply let Homer bring the speeding monorail to a halt. Hell, even ending it with Nimoy disappearing into nothingness is too clean.
What could be better? Well, that would be Marge trailing off almost mid-sentence, while talking about an escalator to nowhere.
The Simpsons isn’t the only show with such self-awareness about its own relative directionlessness, but surely it’s the only one so eager to draw attention to the fact.
Maybe that’s why it has never been able to find a fitting end to its own run on TV, turning its later seasons into additional steps on that same escalator.